DU professor says poker is about skill, not luck

After a billion hands of poker, University of Denver professor Robert Hannum knows when to hold 'em

In recent years, Hannum has devoted much of his research to the study of poker — in particular, the issue of whether it's primarily a game of chance or one of skill. The question is more complicated than it sounds and has become a flashpoint in legal battles over the game. Starting with a Colorado trial two years ago, Hannum has emerged as a formidable expert witness for the defense in cases around the country in which poker-game organizers have been prosecuted for defying state laws.

Through the use of computer simulations and other methods, Hannum has shored up the case for poker as predominantly a game of skill. "Bob's work has been hugely impactful on the debate," says Anthony Cabot, a prominent gaming-law attorney in Las Vegas who collaborated with Hannum on Practical Casino Math and other projects. "He's done some research that's truly seminal in this area, and it always comes up and is cited in the discussion of whether poker is skill or chance."

This week, at the Hawaii International Conference on Social Sciences, Hannum will unveil what may be his most important contribution to the field to date: a presentation based on detailed research of a billion hands of live online poker. The timing couldn't be better, as legislators argue over what to do about the regulation of online poker sites in the wake of "Black Friday," on April 15. That was the day the Department of Justice announced indictments against owners of the three largest Internet poker sites, charging them with bank fraud and gambling violations. The move made the sites unavailable to American players and threw the entire online poker industry, estimated to draw as much as $6 billion in wagering a year, into chaos.

The recent crackdown "makes me feel the stuff I'm working on now is important," Hannum says, "because the government is going to have to deal with it. They're either going to have to make it clearly illegal or regulate it."

He hopes his research might be the winning hand. "I haven't seen a study that examines this many real games," he says. "I just think someone — and I hope it's us — can and should produce something that's pretty convincing on the question of skill versus chance in poker. I'm really hoping that's what will come out of this."


In his book Casino, a study of the waning mob influence in Vegas in the 1980s that's the basis for the Robert De Niro film, Nicholas Pileggi writes, "A casino is a mathematics palace set up to separate players from their money. Every bet made in a casino has been calibrated within a fraction of its life to maximize profit while still giving the players the illusion that they have a chance."

It's a passage that Hannum is fond of citing in his own work. And why not? It's the intricacy of that palace, which players storm again and again with fresh strategies and hubris — trying to claw their way to some kind of advantage, however illusory — that made Hannum realize that gambling could be a rich area of research.

Hannum grew up in the Philadelphia area and demonstrated an aptitude for math at an early age. By high school, he was sufficiently accomplished at it to earn cruel nicknames from classmates. He took his first course in statistics and probability as an undergraduate at the University of Dayton and knew it was the field he wanted to pursue. "I liked that you could take the mathematics and apply it to real-world situations," he says now.

After graduate work at Florida State and a stint teaching at Bucknell University, Hannum arrived at DU in 1979. The school, the students, the mountains all suited him just fine. He wrote well-received papers on Bayesian nonparametrics and income inequalities and other rarefied statistical issues and may well have continued in that vein, except for a fateful trip to Las Vegas in 1994.

"I was at an international conference on risk-taking and gambling," he recalls. "Up to that point, I wasn't aware of how much study was being done in the area of commercial gaming. When I saw all the cool applications, people doing high-level, scholarly studies — it was much more interesting than the usual fare."

The experience prompted Hannum to develop what he calls "applied probability" courses at DU, focusing on gaming operations. One course, "Risky Business," involved assigned reading on the theory of gambling before a week-long trip to Sin City to meet with casino executives, gaming regulators and other industry types. Some classes were held in a dead pit on the casino floor, where an employee would set up games and explain their finer points. Hannum discovered it was an excellent way to convey key concepts of probability to students.

"People relate to gambling for a number of reasons," Hannum notes. "The notion of odds and risk is universal. Uncertainty is in almost everything we do. And people find casinos are fun. It's kind of a sexy thing, and students like examining it."

The course attracted widespread media attention and led to spinoffs. So many DU law students wanted to take it that Hannum developed another class dealing with gaming law. A course on Colorado's limited-stakes gaming industry followed, with required field work in the mountain towns where gambling was legalized twenty years ago. This month he'll be teaching another popular class, "The Science of Poker," which requires as a prerequisite an introductory course in statistics and delves into principles, strategies, the history and language of the game, and what a course description lists as "pot odds, expected value, variance, effective odds, implied odds, game theory, deception, bluffing, earning rate, bankroll analysis" and more.

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jenny john
jenny john

Ya i am also agree with them that poker is all about skill and chance not depend on luck, casino is a one of the best option for enjoyment and earning money. I this blog post i found really a useful stuff about the casino gaming. slots


Ya i am agree with this sentence that poker is all about skill but i think luck is also does matters in casino gaming. Without skill and knowledge we can not give our best performance casino gaming is might be risky. online slots

Terry Terril
Terry Terril

Very interesting article. The gambling games can be analyzed top to bottom, but they are only games. Different rules, different instruments, luck or skill, maybe even a little cheating. But all- in-all they are only games, played by people. Poker, roulette, craps, 21, the big wheel, keno, bingo and hundreds of others have been around for years. What's the big deal?

The big deal is m-o-n-e-y. If a big game of Texas Hold'em was held in Central Park NYC, and was played for fun, and the winner received a rousting applause, no one would give a hoot. But when money is introduced into the game as a fee for playing, or as a prize for good play,many people especially the government guru's get their shorts in a knot.

Nobody really cares if a game is mostly luck or if its all skill. The people who are most concerned about the activity are interested in the money. Who's getting the money? Will the players get money? Will the provider of the games get money? Will they give their honest share to the government? Will government employees and their cronies get money? Where does the money go?

If the numbers on where the money goes are analyzed a whole different perspective will be revealed. Bet on it.